ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. College football fans are ready to celebrate tomorrow, the first Saturday of the new season. And fans in Columbus, Ohio, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, are eager to move on. A scandal involving Ohio State players and popular head coach Jim Tressel dominated the off-season news, reaching a low point in May.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, as you know Tressel resigned yesterday. He'd been caught up in a scandal surrounding several of his players selling memorabilia, something he knew about and didn't tell anyone for months.
BLOCK: A recent scandal at the University of Miami has pushed Ohio State out of the headlines, and that's fine with many Buckeye fans. But for one reformer, the problems at Ohio State are better not forgotten. NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.
LUKE FICKELL: This is my first time at this. So go ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FICKELL: Go ahead and throw some questions at me.
TOM GOLDMAN: The Luke Fickell era of Ohio State football began this week with nervous laughter. Understandable when you consider Fickell is joining a list of head coaches whose names are spoken with almighty reverence in the Buckeye State - Woody Hayes, Earl Bruce and, yes, Jim, Tressel, the man Fickell succeeded abruptly in May. But after that initial giggle, Coach Fick was very much in control at his first press conference of the 2011 season, even when he was asked about the scandal.
FICKELL: There's been a lot of talk, but talk is that, you know. Our performance will be what we want to define us.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You guys will get every ounce of energy that I have until I'm done and I'm crawling off the field.
GOLDMAN: The players echoed that speak-through-action theme in a video that's become a YouTube hit. But will action translate to success? Because of the scandal, five of the best players were suspended the first five games of this season. One of them, star quarterback Terrell Pryor, bolted for the NFL. So the Buckeyes are embracing an underdog role, with a slogan of shock the world.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's play some football.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's play some football.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GOLDMAN: Hard to keep the goose bumps down. But 90 minutes south of Columbus, in Athens, Ohio, there's concern the start of the season might also signal an unfortunate ending.
DAVE RIDPATH: I do think that a lot of this momentum, if we want to call it that, is really going to slow down.
GOLDMAN: Momentum for change in college sports.
RIDPATH: I am Dave Ridpath. I'm an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University.
GOLDMAN: And over the past year of scandal at Ohio State and other high-profile schools, Dave Ridpath has been an outspoken critic of a college sports model he says is broken. He's been saying it for years, as a member of the Drake Group, a faculty organization devoted to college athletic reform.
Dave Ridpath is 46, with a shaved head and athletic build. He was a wrestler and wrestling coach. Ridpath is not your stereotypical corduroy-jacket-wearing faculty member railing about college sports. In fact, he was way on the inside, working in college athletics for a dozen years.
RIDPATH: I was of the opinion that, you know, athletics paid the salaries of faculty members. The fiber of the whole institutional soul depended upon the athletic department. That's what I thought.
GOLDMAN: Until he was hired as assistant athletic director at Marshall University.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Looks like he's going the distance. Randy Moss. What a play.
GOLDMAN: Ridpath was at Marshall in the late 1990s when wide receiver Randy Moss helped put a spotlight on the school. In '99, after Moss had moved on to the NFL, Marshall became embroiled in a scandal involving academic fraud and football players. Ridpath reported violations to the NCAA but ended up getting blamed for the problems. He sued members of the athletic staff, and they settled before trial. The experience created a crusader.
RIDPATH: If somebody like me can get forced out of college athletics and the people who really committed the violations can get by, and not only get by but get raises and continue on, it made me think something's wrong here.
GOLDMAN: What's wrong can seem like a multi-headed hydra: boosters run amok, recruiting violations, football and men's basketball coaches getting paid the biggest salaries on campus, rising student fees propping up overspending athletic departments. But Ridpath and the Drake Group have distilled it all down to one question they say should be the foundation of reform: Do we want college sports played by college students - real college students?
RIDPATH: Are we really bringing kids in for an education?
GOLDMAN: If the answer is yes, he says, great. Then make freshmen ineligible to play sports so they can get a year of academics under their belt first. Offer multiyear athletic scholarships rather than the current one year, which forces athletes to focus primarily on their sport so the scholarship won't get yanked. And, Ridpath says, with a nod toward the scandal up at Ohio State, make sure those scholarships cover the true cost of attendance.
RIDPATH: With that, we eliminate the excuse at least of saying I didn't have any money so I had to go trade my jersey to get a tattoo.
GOLDMAN: If the answer is no, then stop the charade, Ridpath says, of saying all athletes are students, too. Separate big-time college sports from schools, make teams self-sufficient private entities, pay the kids, let them go to school on their own time if they want.
Could that really happen?
RIDPATH: I mean, bigger things have happened in our history. I can remember when it was like, oh my gosh, they're letting professionals in the Olympics. It was supposed to be the death of the Olympics. Olympics are probably more popular now than they've ever been. It would be a dramatic change.
GOLDMAN: The less dramatic changes Ridpath is talking about actually are on the NCAA's radar screen. Action on the scholarship proposals could come as soon as next month, when the college football season is going full steam.
JOHN CHUBB: I can't wait, man. I'll be there rooting them on, man.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Oh, man. I feel...
CHUBB: We're going to shock the world.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I can't wait.
GOLDMAN: John Chubb, aka the Buck-I-Guy, is sitting on the patio of Eddie George's Grille back in Columbus. He's dressed in his attention-grabbing white 10-gallon hat, a white cape, with Ohio State written on everything.
CHUBB: This happens to be my lucky outfit.
GOLDMAN: Which he wears to every home game, where he sits in the front row at Ohio Stadium, nicknamed The Horseshoe, or Shoe. Behind the comic book appearance, 51-year-old John Chubb seems smart and thoughtful. I'm interested in whether a man so steeped in fandom thinks about the problems in college sports and the kind of reform about which Dave Ridpath is so passionate?
CHUBB: Man, that's a great question.
GOLDMAN: Which Chubb tries to answer, but like following a divining rod, the words find their way to his beloved stadium down the street.
CHUBB: That's my single-minded focus is get back to where it is that I need to be, that comfortable place, that lovely place, over in the Shoe, as we like to call it, the Ohio State University.
GOLDMAN: Dave Ridpath says college sports fans are like people who eat at a favorite restaurant but don't dare go in the kitchen because they might see something that turns their stomach. As football fans across the country prepare to gorge, Ridpath, who likes watching football, hopes enough change can come to college sports that fans can go in the kitchen and keep eating to their heart's content.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.